When I first read recently that the Dodgers offered Manny Ramirez a two-year contract worth $45 million, just one word came to mind: "Sucka!" Didn't the Dodgers realize they hit the jackpot by getting two months of Happy Manny, and now they needed him to be someone else's gamble? Whether or not Dodger fans are cringing at the offer, which has since been upped to include a third-year option, may have to do with whether they believe Manny was motivated by his impending free agent status.
If there was ever a case study of an apparent contract year performance surge, it would be Manny. Though he was criticized for lackadaisical play during the first four months of the '08 season, his pre-trade performance was still quite useful for Fantasy and actual baseball purposes, if not quite vintage Manny. By the time he was done introducing himself to National League pitching, he had produced some of his best full-season numbers this decade. His 2008 stats are especially impressive if you take both his relatively slow start and the overall decline in major league offense into account.
Whoever eventually signs Ramirez will not only be taking on enough baggage to fill the team plane's overhead compartment, but also the risk of a post-contract year recession. The same could be true for Fantasy owners (well, not the baggage part), and they will have to weigh these possibilities as they draw up their draft or protection lists for 2009. Here on CBSSports.com, the outlook for Ramirez is definitely not so rosy. Despite finishing second in Fantasy points among outfielders in 2008, Ramirez is projected to fall to ninth next year, three spots below his replacement in left field in Boston, Jason Bay.
|Derek Lowe had one of the best years of his career in 2008. (US Presswire)|
Going by some of the recent anecdotal evidence, the answer would be "plenty." In '08, K-Rod elevated his Fantasy game to a whole new level; in '07, it was A-Rod who busted his way up the charts. Not only did the latter Rodriguez scorch opponents in his contract year, but he returned to the ranks of mortals -- albeit really good mortals -- the following year. Aaron Rowand and Mike Lowell followed the same pattern, despite not having cool nicknames like A-Row and M-Low.
Then again, Edgar Renteria and Jason Varitek didn't do much to enhance their paydays this year, flailing in their contract years just as Andruw Jones and Mike Cameron did before them. Since this is By the Numbers, and not By the Anecdotes, let's see what a larger sample tells us first before we pronounce this myth busted.
Of the 178 major league batters who generated at least 40 runs worth of production (using the Bill James Runs Created metric) in both 2007 and 2008, 26 just completed their contract year. This group of free agents actually saw their per-game productivity decline from '07, albeit by the very small margin of 0.07 RC/27. This is roughly equivalent to the decline in productivity experienced by Adam Dunn over the past year. (What decline in productivity? Exactly.) Bear in mind, though, that offense was down throughout the big leagues this year, so the 2009 free agent class' collective stagnation actually put them ahead of the curve.
By comparison, the 152 regulars who are not free agents saw their average RC/27 decline by 0.35. That translates to something like the '08 version of Yunel Escobar turning into Jason Bartlett. That's enough of a difference to suggest that there could be something to this contract year business after all.
Sometimes, though, statistics lie, especially when they are based on a sample of just 26 players. Of these free agents, only two increased their 2007 RC/27 scores by more than two runs. One of them, Ray Durham, merely bounced back from an uncharacteristically bad '07, settling in at something close to his usual level of performance. The other outlier was Manuel Aristides Ramirez. Remove these two players from our sample of free agents and the average change in RC/27 for the free agent group (-0.33) is awfully similar to that of the non-free agent group (-0.35). In other words, the appearance of a contract year phenomenon among major league hitters this year has been created almost single-handedly by Manny Ramirez.
Free agent pitchers did even less to support their cause in contract negotiations than the hitters did. The 21 starting pitchers in their contract years raised their collective Earned Run Component (ERC) by 0.27, while the 90 others who qualified for the analysis decreased their ERC by 0.10. We can chalk up the disappointing performance of Kenny Rogers to age, Brad Penny's to health, Tom Glavine's to both, and A.J. Burnett's to bad luck (.321 BABIP despite his highest flyball rate in four years), but two free agents particularly primed to have career years -- Jon Garland and Oliver Perez -- just flat out regressed. Meanwhile, the two most improved free agent starters, Mike Mussina and Jamie Moyer, are probably the least likely candidates of this group to be motivated by a fat, new contract.
Those determined to make a case for the contract year phenomenon can point to Derek Lowe's '08 stats, which were his best since signing with the Dodgers four years ago. Just remember that this is the same Derek Lowe who stunk up Beantown for two years before departing via free agency. All in all, there just isn't much evidence to support the idea that this current class, or any class, of free agents are a bad Fantasy bet once they are off the market.
Regardless of any contract year motivations that Manny Ramirez may or may not have had, Fantasy owners should expect less from him in 2009. One reason to temper expectations is that his value this past year was largely based on a .373 BABIP that was unsupported by his skill stats, though impressive they may have been. He should still hit 35 to 40 home runs, but fewer of the balls he hits inside the park will result in base hits, dragging his batting average close to .300. Manny is still a top 10 Fantasy outfielder, but we can't expect him to remain in the top two or three.
As for the rest of the free agent class, there is little reason to anticipate a post-contract year dropoff. Adam Dunn, Milton Bradley, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Orlando Hudson could be due for a draft list downgrade if they move into home parks that are less hitter-friendly, while Mark Teixeira and Casey Blake could actually improve if they return to a hitter's environment. Likewise, Derek Lowe and Ben Sheets could see their value dip if they moved to, say, Fenway or Wrigley. For the most part, though, there is no reason to factor in a player's free agent status when deciding where to rank them or whether to protect them for next season.
| Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James |
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (H/BIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.